What’s it been like for Roberson? Harden’s played 110 minutes this series to Roberson’s 111. They’ve been on the court together for all but 54 seconds.
With Roberson as the primary defender against him, Harden has shot 43 percent (13-of-30 overall, 4-of-12 3-pointers) compared to 55.6 percent on all other defenders or no defender (20-of-36).
“I feel like I’ve done a good job, but I feel like I can do better,” Roberson said Saturday. “It’s tough to completely take him out of the game.”
Roberson’s work this series is contrary to the box score. When the 24-year-old sits down with Thunder staff and sees Harden is averaging 38.7 points, he also takes into account the Rockets’ lead guard is averaging 14.6 points per game on free throws – more than every Thunder player combined (8.6) excluding Russell Westbrook (10.7).
Roberson feels like the job the Thunder has done trying to keep Harden out of the paint and off the free throw line will wear on the Rockets guard over seven games. OKC has to get there first.
“We’re still figuring it out, not reaching, keeping our hands out of there,” Roberson said. “We don’t feel like he can do it for all seven games. If he does, pat him on the butt and move on.”
Roberson can’t find comfort in Harden’s gaudy numbers, so he has to look to key sequences. In Game 1, Harden gave Roberson a vicious crossover that had the Toyota Center crowd standing mid-play. But as Harden drove left, Roberson recovered quickly for a blocked shot that was equally as impressive.
By design, Roberson is on what Donovan describes as an “island” against Harden more than any other Thunder player. It’s a situation Taj Gibson found himself in more in Game 3.
But that was for less than a handful of possessions. Gibson marvels at what it’s been like for Roberson to guard Harden nearly two hours over the last week.
“It’s tough to be locked up with one player the entire game, but it’s even tougher when that one player has the freedom to do whatever he wants, take whatever shot he wants,” Gibson said. “(Harden) can go iso 110 times, and he’s never really tired.
“It’s frustrating sometimes being a defensive player doing that. Andre understands that’s his role and he does it well.”
When Roberson was young, his father, John – who played professionally in Europe for 12 years – knew a lot of players didn’t specialize in the nuances of defending. He saw that innate ability in Andre and took it upon himself to teach his son how to defend. “He has a nose for the ball,” said John, who also stands 6-foot-7.
“I’d like to see him get a little more ferocious.”
Roberson has picked up his aggressiveness this series, cutting more to the basket on offense, leading the Thunder in blocked shots (nine), and often snatching the ball from Harden outright in those isolation situations. Roberson is averaging 14 points, 7.3 rebounds, two steals and three blocks per game, an uptick in postseason production similar to the one that Steven Adams parlayed into a $100 million payday last season.
Roberson’s not in line for a nine-figure contract, but he’s playing elite defense against a nine-figure player with not a minute to be spared.
Heard of 48 minutes of hell? How about trying 38 minutes of Harden? Welcome to the Roberson experience.
“He’s got a lot of endurance,” Thunder forward Doug McDermott said, shaking his head while talking about Roberson. “It definitely makes you tired just from watching him on film and from the bench.
“That guy, he’s gotta sleep well at night.”